Over the last several years iello has become one of the most instantly recognizable publishers in hobby board games. Everyone’s played King of Tokyo at this point, and plenty of other family-aimed games come adorned with their big yellow stamp. But one area of their catalog that I feel never gets enough attention are their meatier offerings, of which there are many. Of course this is “meaty” relative to the likes of Dungeon Fighter but they’ve brought out some pretty thinky stuff: Mythic Battles, Titanium Wars, Bunny Kingdom, The Big Book of Madness, you get the gist. Complex, yet approachable rule sets with the patented iello coat of paint.
There’s a chance you might not even know what these games are or that this side of iello even exists. That’s unsurprising given they rarely explode onto the scene like their lighter brethren do and iello typically doesn’t market them at much. One such game that’s fallen through the cracks is Little Town, originally titled Little Town Builders when it was first released in Japan. I wanted to zero in on this one in particular for two reasons:
1) It’s a perfect example of iello doing thinky, satisfying games in their style.
2) The game’s audience is absolutely NOT who they say it is.
Little Town is a relatively straightforward euro-style game with a twist on worker placement. Each round all you’re going to do is put out a worker and take actions based on where you put ‘em. If you put them out on the grid, they’ll sit on an empty space and collect resources from every adjacent square, including diagonals. If you put them on the workshop, you can spend said resources to build buildings on empty grid spaces which is where the lion’s share of your points are coming from. The buildings become new spots that players can activate by placing workers, just like the resources. Grid spaces are full once there’s one worker or a resource/building on them, but everyone can dog pile the workshop as much as they like. When everyone’s out of workers you have to spend a food cube per worker or you’ll lose points, then first player passes and you start another round. After 4 rounds most points wins.
Normally I don’t like to do rules rundowns in my reviews, but I did so here for a very specific reason: that’s IT. I mean, okay, I’m kind of lying: there are some secret bonus cards you can work towards and you have to pay opponents a coin to use their buildings, but you can absolutely play your first game of Little Town with nothing but that paragraph in your brain. But now we get to the devious twist of Little Town, the one that made me want to review it.
If you are that new player? And you’re playing with experienced folks? You are going to get absolutely SCHELLACKED.
I left out a key detail in my explanation, albeit not a rule. Once the game is set up, Little Town becomes a 100% luck-free game of long term strategy, tactical adjustment, and math. Don’t be scared, it’s not a lot of math, but this is a game where ALL the point scoring opportunities you are ever going to get are visible to you from turn 1. You never add more tiles to the market, so as soon as you take your first action you had better be operating off a solid gameplan because your opponents are racing for the exact. Same. Tiles.
A lot of games use randomness, be it input (dealing a hand of cards) or output (rolling a die), to make players’ decisions hazy. Without perfect information players make the best choices they can when they can, ideally while considering but not stressing over all the possibilities. After all, sometimes you’re just gonna roll snake eyes or flop the wrong card at the wrong time. Little Town does not give a damn about your comfort. Little Town holds nothing back and demands you perform or die. Little Town is a car ride on a cliffside where the guardrail looks juuuuust structurally unsound enough to terrify you.
Despite its cutesy facade, Little Town is as tightly wound as a euro game can be. Sure if you play it with a casual group as a filler and no one’s thinking too hard it functions just as well. After all, the game only takes about 30 minutes. But if players are aiming to optimize? And block each other? And grab a tile just because they noticed that someone else has grabbed exactly what they need to make it next turn? And plunk it down in a key location that a different player has been building up? Good lord this thing has teeth.
I also want to highlight the excellent form factor and graphic design. Little Town is in a fairly tiny square box that wastes very little of its space. Everything is clear to read, the small handful of icons on the buildings are intuitive and easily translated, and darn it the game just looks nice. There’s a special kind of satisfaction that hits at the end of the game where you look at the finished town you all just made and consider how different it is from the mostly-empty field it once was. Then you remember that the big statue in the center of town was supposed to be YOURS, but then TODD built it, and it was in the WAY for the last two rounds, and God-DAMMIT let’s rematch.
Little Town is good, is what I’m saying. I don’t think it necessarily deserves to be elevated to the euro game pantheon, but it succeeds at everything it tries to do and then some. If you’re looking for a smartly designed game that respects your time and has no cruft getting in the way of the good bits, you’d be hard pressed to find much better.